Last week’s meeting of the Regional School Unit 13 board was only a little more uplifting than watching “The Killing Fields” or “Terms of Endearment.”

The meeting was filled with dire predictions of devastating budget cuts that will gut programs and threaten the education of the 2,150 students in the six communities of RSU 13.

The crux of the problem is that the district expects to have $3.5 million less in revenues than it has available this year. That amounts to about 12 percent of the $28.6 million budget for 2009-2010.

The district is faced with a few choices. The district could adopt a budget that does not reduce spending at all and instead bills property owners an additional $3.5 million. Or it could cut $3.5 million and not seek an additional penny from residents. Or the district could find a dollar amount in between those two extremes.

There was talk about looking outside the box, a vague phrase that means little in reality.

The board ended up advising the superintendent to come up with a budget that will require an additional 3 percent in property taxes from residents. The board was sharply divided on this decision, however, with some members saying that people can’t afford their current taxes let alone another penny to government.

Here are some facts.

Since August 2007, Knox County has lost nearly 3,000 jobs. The December 2009 unemployment rate stood at 8 percent. In December 2007, that rate was a mere 4.7 percent.

In addition to layoffs, many businesses either froze pay for workers or cut the pay of their employees.

Just this week, Pen Bay Healthcare announced the layoff of workers. Pen Bay Healthcare froze salaries of its employees last year and reduced some benefits. There may be more reductions in 2010.

The income for local retailers in 2009 was down about 10 percent from 2008. This means the owners of gift shops, car dealerships, hardware stores, department stores and other businesses in Knox County saw their incomes drop by more than $40 million.

Lobstermen in Knox County earned $15 million less in 2008 than in 2007. The figures for 2009 are not yet available but anecdotal information indicates the income could again be down.

Faced with this scenario, most observers would realize that we are living with a situation that has not been experienced since the 1930s. Anyone younger than 75 has no direct memory of the last Great Depression.

Don Choquette, a former Maine School Administrative District 50 board member, has voiced a concern that may be central to the solution. Eighty percent of the district budget goes for salaries and benefits of the approximately 450 employees of RSU 13. This amounts to about $23 million a year in spending by taxpayers.

Knowing that the district was heading rapidly toward a financial cliff, however, the district granted raises to many workers this year. Administrators got raises. A large percentage of the teachers also saw a pay hike from step increases that were part of the contract that expired last year but that RSU 13 is honoring this year.

There is likely not one other organization in Knox County that handed out raises while facing a $3.5 million deficit.

Choquette has pointed out that even though the voters will have the final say on the budget at the ballot box in June, the board may box the citizens into a corner by that time by approving labor contracts that leave no opportunity for savings.

State law allows, although it does not require, government bodies to negotiate labor contracts behind closed doors. So, in effect, the school board can negotiate 80 percent of the school budget behind closed doors. The residents will only find out the results when the board votes on the contract. There is no opportunity for the public to comment and try to change it if desired.

I posed a question to both the superintendent and the board chairwoman at the last meeting. Has there been any consideration of asking all staff to take a pay cut for 2010-2011? A 5 percent pay cut, for example, would make up most of the lost revenues and stave off the devastating cuts that the administration said would occur if $3.5 million were cut from the budget.

The answer was that any issue about contracts is confidential.

If layoffs are made in the district, the people cut will be the ones with least seniority and the ones who earn the least amount of money. If the district wants to reach a certain dollar amount, then the number of jobs to be cut will have to be greater if the lowest paid workers are the ones who lose their jobs.

But the school board observer noted that this “devastation” could be avoided if the board members decided to follow the same steps businesses in the region have followed. The board has made no public plea to its staff to have negotiations in public where the citizens could see how responsive and sympathetic their public employees are to the plight of the average homeowner or business owner.

Choquette voiced frustration that the board can hide behind the executive session clauses to determine the school budget away from the eye of the public.

In this time of crisis, would asking for public contract talks and pay concessions be thinking outside the box?